Picture this: You’re an injection drug user, and, you’re worried the next time you use, you might die. So, you head for the Shepherds of Good Hope, where there’s a special trailer. There, you can use your drugs – and someone will save you if you overdose.
Upon arrival, though, there’s a police cruiser outside. Apparently it’s there a lot, at least according to Ottawa Inner City Health, which runs the injection site, and officers are questioning staff and clients.
And so you turn around. You take your chances injecting elsewhere, to avoid being harassed by police. Maybe you’ll overdose and there will be nobody to save you. So it goes.
With between 130 and 170 people actually using the injection trailer daily, it’s got to be asked: How many are not showing up because they’re afraid of the police?
Since Ottawa’s mayor and police chief had both been openly hostile toward the idea before recently softening their views, it’s no surprise those tasked with enforcing the laws may not have, after years of hearing one thing, quite come ’round to the virtues of addicts having a safe environment in which to inject their drugs. (On Tuesday, the chief disputed this characterization of his position in a statement to the Citizen.)
And yet, this situation is a dangerous one. If injection sites are providing lifesaving medical care — and they are — then anything that keeps people away risks indirectly causing death.
This isn’t actually complicated. It’s worrisome if local cops can’t follow along.
And so, a solution: It’s time that drugs — all drugs — are decriminalized, then legalized and sold like alcohol or tobacco or (soon) marijuana. Decriminalization would remove criminal penalties for drug use — legalization would allow regulated use and sale.
The arguments in favour of pot legalization apply to other drugs, too, including improved quality, the end of the black market as well as a reduction in crime, desperation and overdoses.
It’s also the right thing to do. It’s up to each of us to decide how we treat our bodies.
What the Shepherds struggle shows is that, at present, humane drug policy relies too much on police acquiescence. A safe-injection site only works if police abide by a gentleman’s agreement to not arrest or harangue people coming in and out.
Apparently, it worked fine for the first little while that the site was open. But something has gone wrong fuelled, no doubt, by the fear of a no-go zone where cops can’t arrest drug dealers and users smash and grab everything they can to finance their habit. (Such a no-go zone does not exist in Ottawa, says the police force.)
The evidence that crime goes up around injection sites is weak at best, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the promulgation of this fear.
If police aren’t going to play ball with supervised injection, which has the potential to save some of the hundreds and hundreds of people who died from fentanyl overdoses in Canada last year, then it’s time police are removed from this equation as much as possible.
Decriminalization and legalization would kill many birds with one stone. In December, Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, described “a very toxic drug supply” in Canada, with fentanyl expected in a majority of all opioid-related deaths. This is not a problem that policing can fix. It make it worse — certainly police do by keeping people away from injection sites.
If drugs are regulated, they’re safer. If they’re bought in stores, it eliminates seedy areas or dealers. If drug use isn’t criminalize and the stigma goes down, it becomes easier to get people into treatment, if they want to.
Jagmeet Singh, the new NDP leader, has floated decriminalization. While this would be the right thing to do, it’s not likely to be a vote-getter, so it’ll stay on the outskirts of Canadian politics. It’s a shame, really, but perhaps Singh will change our political culture. It’s more of a shame that drug users and the people who care for them feel the police in Ottawa are endangering them.
Even if the police think they aren’t responsible here, that doesn’t make it so; the consequences, even if unintentional, require the police to do a serious re-think about how they’re policing near injection sites.
Tyler Dawson is deputy editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen.